When one of my buddies recently complained what a sorry year 2009 was for film, I pitied him, because for music, the year was a truly great one. Especially compared to the onset of this decade, when bubblegum pop ruled the charts, Napster was hitting its stride and Destiny’s Child was still together.
The lonely thump of late-90s techno that was formerly a major influence on popular music gave way to a movement of open-minded, more cerebral musical ideas.
This year, the iPod generation embraced a quasi-disco revolution, the music industry’s funeral procession is halfway through and music is an almost-free commodity. And Beyoncé is still making hits! (She is one of our generation’s icons) Pop music culture is diverse, fertile and constantly inventive. These are the top records of 2009.
10. Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free – Akron/Family
Bands like The Very Best, Animal Collective and Akron/Family consciously incorporate rhythms and textures from all points of geography, but the last group is special in its technical proficiency. The nods to Afrobeat are subtle like they should be, the songwriting is sound and diverse and if this music has anything, it’s spirit. Wild sounds like a utopian hippie commune, where everyone gets to sing lead.
9. Drift – Nosaj Thing
When I met Nosaj Thing, prior to his opening set for Bassnectar at George’s in November, I behaved like a giddy little girl. I stuttered and posed eloquent compliments like, “your music is nice.” But what could I say? Jason Chung, the 24-year-old L.A. native behind Nosaj Thing, made one of the year’s most compelling records, an unsolvable hip-hop nightmare straight out of “Mega Man.” Eventually, Drift’s tracks sound a little too similar, but no one cares when the beats are as hypnotic as these. For nighttime activities.
8. Logos – Atlas Sound
Fall has been more than kind to Logos, a record that stayed with me through road trips home and back. As a whole, it’s a contemplative record. Bradford Cox, the man behind the moniker, makes songs that get pleasantly lost in a cloud of introspection, and these are no different: “The Light That Failed” sounds like a swamp dive on barbiturates while “Attic Lights” meditates on the leisure of paradise. But Logos is never lazy. Like his recent work with the more popular band, Deerhunter, Cox integrates his affinity for doo-wop into many of these tunes. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but…
7. Alien in a Garbage Dump – Eric Copeland
So you’re throwing the most bumpin’ party of the year. You need a record the fellas can nod their heads to, some beats that make the ladies get down. This record is undoubtedly the poorest choice for that scenario. Alien is skuzzy, violent and downright ugly. The record mashes noise with hypnotic bits of song, sometimes letting them wander (a bold move, especially on the first two tracks), sometimes fencing them in (the excellent “Reptilian Space Beings, Shapeshifting Bloodsucking Vampires”). But Copeland somehow structures his noise experiments into a cohesive record. It won’t make you lots of friends, but Alien is the ideal headphones album, filled with hidden sounds and subconscious melodies.
6. Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street – Jon Hassell
Isn’t jazz supposed to swing? Or does it saunter? I know very little of jazz music and all its folklore. But I know that composer Jon Hassell’s newest record sounds like no jazz I’ve heard. Night creates a voyage through an Istanbul night, shrouded in fog, dotted with silky trumpet lines. Electronics burble for a few seconds, never to be heard again. The grooves are implied, meditative and forlorn. Delicious, like pipe smoke.
5. Childish Prodigy – Kurt Vile
The cover finds a bookish, fancily dressed kid staring into purple dusk as if his date had just abandoned him for a dance with the prom king. The songs of Childish Prodigy sync nicely with this scene: the only thing lonelier than Vile’s thick, groaning voice (think early Velvet Underground) is the swirling chorus of acoustic guitars. With titles like “Hunchback” and “Freak Train,” it’s obvious Vile’s got a case of the outcast blues, but he puts them to good use in psychedelic takes on Nick Drake (“Heart Attack,” “Dead Alive”). Who wants to be prom king anyway, right, kid?
4. Tarot Sport – F**k Buttons
My roommate listens to Explosions in the Sky when doing homework, which I accept but do not understand. Does post-rock lend hydrocarbon extraction a certain sense of urgency? Anyway, this Bristol duo win “best improved” by combining elements of that genre, with its endless, sincere crescendos, and danceable techno beats. It’s no coincidence that Tarot Sport’s best songs are also its most ambitious, with “Surf Solar” and “Olympians” clocking in at over 10 glorious minutes. The group is unafraid of experimenting with sounds, and this set of songs is paradoxically diverse and cohesive. If you want an A in geology, buy this album.
3. Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle – Bill Callahan
The 2007 film, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” is one of my favorites. Brad Pitt’s depiction of the infamous Western criminal is sinister, yet always vulnerable. There are moments when, as a saddled James looks out over the sweeping plains, his eyes are glowing pools of reverence and sadness. Bill Callahan’s appropriately-titled Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle is one of those moments. Each song is a thunderhead with pockets of sunshine, minor-chord dirges (“The Wind and the Dove”) interrupted by subtle strings and French horn (“Jim Cain”). Callahan sing-speaks poetry in a baritone as thick and tall as the Smoky Mountains and on Eagle, his unrest has never sounded so at peace.
2. Merriweather Post Pavilion – Animal Collective
Much has happened in the world of Brooklyn sensations Animal Collective since this album leaked on Christmas Day of last year. Merriweather nearly reached the Billboard charts in vinyl sales alone (in the dead of winter, no less!), performed on Letterman (“Paul, do you have anything for the trick-or-treaters?”) and got praise from everyone from M.I.A. to Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. What’s the fuss? Merriweather combines the group’s penchant for repetition with very shiny production in their bounciest, most contagious songs yet, from “My Girls” to “Summertime Clothes” to “Brothersport.” Lyrically, the collective is less secretive, focusing on the communion of domestic life, the simple value of “Daily Routine,” strange and joyful monogamy. Next up: a record about bittersweet fame?
1. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix – Phoenix
All my friends love this album: the one that loves racing cars to the thrash of Metallica, the one that has a (worrying) crush on Ron Weasley, the sloppy-eyed burnout, the earnest farm boy, even my mom. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is not the most innovative release of the year, but it is the most universally likable. It’s your favorite child, skipping, grinning and forever curious. Thomas Mars sings in earnest questions: “Who’s the boy you like the most?” and “Where would you go with a lasso?” and “Could you go and run into me?” This French quartet has been playing together since childhood, and it shows in the fake out into of ”Lisztomania” and the rushing two-part “Love Like a Sunset.” Wolfgang is so clearly the work of a band, an album so pure in spirit and a piece much too fun to describe.